San Diego State’s Steve Fisher is the most underrated coach in college basketball, and it's not really all that close.
In his 15th season at the helm of the Aztecs’ program, Fisher has his team trending once more towards unparalleled heights: San Diego State is 18-1 and 7-0 in the Mountain West Conference, with wins over name-brand schools like Kansas, Creighton, and UNLV. Top-ranked Arizona is the only team to have defeated Fisher’s squad this season, a hard-fought contest that resulted in a nine-point loss.
Perhaps most impressively, SDSU ranks fifth nationally in both the AP and Coaches’ polls during a season in which many people thought they would slip due to heavy roster turnover. Instead, Fisher's team has done nothing but exceed expectations.
This is all part of the continued transformation of a program that was once a perennial doormat in a mediocre conference. After early success at Michigan, where he presided over the most successful stretch in Wolverine basketball history, Fisher is still painting his true masterpiece -- the transformation of San Diego State into a basketball powerhouse.
To put into perspective just how impressive Fisher’s turnaround of the Aztecs has been, take a look at the program's history prior to his arrival. In the 14 seasons before Fisher’s arrival in 1999, the Aztecs managed exactly zero winning conference seasons, and just one winning season overall. During the 29 seasons SDSU had spent in Division I, they had reached the NCAA tournament just three times, and each time they were summarily dismissed in the first round.
Just one player in program history, forward Michael Cage, had achieved any kind of success in the NBA. The program’s most recognizable figure was Tony Gwynn, best known for his ability on the baseball diamond.
In the 14 seasons before Fisher’s arrival in 1999, the Aztecs managed exactly zero winning conference seasons.
Fast-forward to 2014, and the Aztecs are on the verge of their fifth-consecutive NCAA tournament appearance, their ninth-consecutive 20-win season, and their third conference title in four years.
What changed? Namely, Fisher, and a commitment to defense that rivals any program in the country. According to KenPom.com, San Diego State has been ranked among the top 50 in adjusted defensive efficiency in the country each of the past eight seasons, including a banner year in 2011 when SDSU was ranked second. The Aztecs are back at it again this season, leading the nation in field-goal percentage defense at a stifling 36.2 percent while holding opponents to just 56.1 points per game, tied for second-best in the nation.
If the team’s strong defense over the years wasn’t enough to highlight Fisher’s coaching ability, his team’s success in late games shows that he’s as good a coach as there is in college basketball.
SDSU has won an astonishing 110 consecutive games when leading with five minutes to play, a streak that dates back to Jan. 9, 2010. The Aztecs have won 16 of their past 17 overtime games, including last week’s thriller on the road at Utah State, and are a cool 31-8 since 2010 in games decided by six points or less or in overtime. That’s the best mark in college basketball during that time period.
If there’s one thing Fisher has yet to do at SDSU, it’s consistently make deep NCAA tournament runs. Nonetheless, the Aztecs have shown signs of life in March in recent years. After losing their first six NCAA tournament games in school history, Fisher and the Aztecs broke through the proverbial glass ceiling en-route to SDSU’s first Sweet Sixteen appearance in 2011.
Fisher’s late-game management will be the key to SDSU’s success this March.
Fisher now has all three NCAA tournament wins in program history, and given his track record of postseason success, it should be sooner rather than later that the Aztecs make a push deep into March. With improved roster talent, Fisher’s late-game management will be the key to SDSU’s success this March, when he will look to add to his already gaudy 23-12 career record during the NCAA tournament.
Perhaps it's because of SDSU’s location on the West Coast, or its play in a non-power conference, but year after year it seems as though Fisher -- the man who brought the Fab Five together and won 16 of his first 18 NCAA tournament games -- gets repeatedly overlooked as one of the best coaches in college basketball. It's time the country wakes up and takes notice, before the Aztecs start taking out traditional powerhouses this March.
If one thing is certain, SDSU certainly won’t be out-coached when it matters most.